May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
April 18, 2013
On paper, Upstream Color ticks a remarkable number of my boxes:
Lengthy sequences sans dialogue? ✓
Auteur struggle vibe? ✓
Economy of image across multiple planes of action? ✓
Responsive PR contact? ✓
Fetching composition? ✓
Alternative distribution? ✓
Really cosmic stuff going on? ✓
Pascalian images of the “condition of men”? ✓
Lack of exposition? ✓
Rudy Rucker meets Orchid Thief madness? ✓
So on paper, this film appears near ideal relative to my tastes. And the questions that emerge from this odd and elliptical symphony about nematodes and pigs and people and a foley version of the universe have great theological value. Beyond questions about what actually happens in the film (which are well-addressed here) Upstream Color is a film about loss and despair. More pointedly, it is about the way we share loss and despair. As we discover toward the end of the film it is even about entire communities of loss and despair, the connections between us as people often born out of revelation about the nature of our condition.
A basic theological question is simply: What happened to us?
Upstream Color shifts in scope as Jeff begins to mail out copies of Walden to others that have been affected by this crazy plot line. These others receive the book in the mail. They crack it open and begin reading. This breaks loose memories of what happened, a rationale for why their lives have gone so haywire. This phase of the film is about revelation, about the kinds of apocalypses that interpret, explain, and even heal. This is all Jeff and Kris have been looking for.
Prior to the mass mailing of Walden, there is a scene during which Jeff reads aloud passages of the text to Kris as she dives for bits of rubble at the bottom of a swimming pool. Every time she emerges, she is inexplicably able to finish his spoken sentences and paragraphs from memory. Jeff is visibly shaken. But note what is actually happening here: She is diving deep down in the water to recover little bits of things that shouldn’t be there. The metaphor is explicit enough that it almost ceases to be a metaphor. She is simply acting out her psychological process, which by virtue of Carruth’s presence as Jeff in the scene may also be taken as a reflection of his process. It all gets really meta in a hurry. Diving, finding, clutching, sorting. It is a breathtaking moment. As Pascal said, “It is an image of the condition of men.”
But, here is where I begin to equivocate. I like what the film is about, but I am not sure I like how it is about it. Both Primer and Upstream Color feature what appear to be really complex narratives without any exposition. A sense of mystery emerges from our inability to forge connections between narrative cause and effect, which lends the experience of Carruth’s films a sense of wonder and puzzlement. But, it really only takes a few minutes and the back of a napkin to sort these films out. The basic structure of both Primer and Upstream Color are not as nearly complex as they first felt. With Upstream Color, this abstraction of the underlying narrative lends the film a gravity it may not otherwise have contained.
This in itself is not a cause for criticism. The possibility that Carruth becomes typecast by this formula is. I’ll just say it: Shyamalan.